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Communication, Conflict & Commitment

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Conflict Management

"Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding."
- Albert Einstein

"The goal of an argument should be progress, not victory."
- Unknown

Conflict Management Checkup

Read and answer the following questions, ideally with your partner. If you are unhappy with your answers to any of these questions, working through the following module will help you feel more confident about your conflict management skills and your answers to each of these questions.

  • In what areas do we tend to have conflicts (e.g., money management, leisure time, goals, religious issues, etc.)?
  • How did our parents deal with or resolve conflict in their relationship? Can we learn from their example or do we want to do things differently?
  • What will we do (or what do we do) when we find that we are not getting along or things are not working out right?
  • What steps can we create for resolving fights, arguments, or disagreements when they happen?
  • Will we be (or are we) willing to seek the help of a professional counselor if we are having problems?

Conflict Discussion

Conflict is a natural and normal part of all relationships. No couple agrees on everything or gets along with one another 100% of the time. Conflict is likely in marriage because married couples are closer and they deal with more things together than anyone else. This closeness and sharing of experiences also makes marriage one of the most rewarding and happy relationships we can have. In fact, researchers have found that happy couples have as many differences of opinion as divorcing couples. The happy couples just know how to work through those differences and are willing to do it consistently.

There are many sources of couples' conflict, but newlyweds often struggle the most with money, employment, communication, personal interests and expectations, and sexual issues. The critical factor for couples in a relationship is not that they have had a conflict, but in how they handle the conflict. When we use destructive approaches it does not help to build or strengthen the relationship. However, when couples use constructive approaches to successfully work through conflict, their relationship grows stronger and they have an increased sense of confidence that they can work through future difficulties. One way to build confidence and commitment is to successfully work through conflict together. In a situation that seems difficult at the time, you might say, "We have worked through many conflicts that I am confident that we will get through this or anything else that comes our way."

How Not To Handle A Conflict

When a conflict is or has taken place between you and your partner, the following strategies will not help to get things resolved. They will only make things worse. Avoid them and stay focused on constructive strategies. The first four strategies have been extensively researched by John Gottman and are good predictors of couples who eventual divorce unless they make some changes. Gotttman calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Other researchers and therapists have identified the remaining items as poor ways to handle conflict.

  1. Criticism - This involves attacking your partner's personality or character rather than talking about the particular behavior you do not like. For example, it is better to say "I do not like it when you leave your shoes and socks lying in the living room floor" than to say "You are a slob."
  2. Contempt - This involves intense and intentional negative thoughts about your partner. They may be thoughts you keep to yourself or that you actually say to your partner or others. They include things like put-downs, mean jokes, name calling, or belittling your partner in any way.
  3. Defensiveness - This involves putting up emotional walls or barriers in an attempt to protect yourself. It is a common response to being put-down or attacked. It often includes excuses, denying responsibility, sarcasm, and attempts to return the insults and emotional injuries you feel you have received.
  4. Stonewalling, Withdrawal, Or Avoidance - This involves shutting down emotionally, avoiding your partner, and refusing to speak or respond to them, even in self-defense. Research shows that couples who "never fight" or stop fighting are the most likely to divorce. That is because they are not facing their problems and are trying to deal with them by avoiding them and hoping they will disappear. This is similar to the ostriches' hope that by burying his head in the sand his enemies will not be able to see him. It just does not work. Diane Sollee has said, "The greatest predictor of divorce is the habitual avoidance of conflict."
  5. Old Issues Are Brought Up - Bringing up past misdeeds, misunderstandings or arguments will generally not help you solve the current problem. Learn from your past but don't hold it against your partner.
  6. Only Negative Feelings Are Shared - Conflicts are not resolved by griping at your partner, putting them down, and telling them how mad or miserable you are. Affection, caring, and hope have to be expressed so that your partner feels like it is worth it to work through the problem and make potential changes.
  7. The Focus Is On The Person - When there is a conflict or misunderstanding between couples, no one likes to feel like it was "all their fault" or like they are "dumb," "stupid," or "incompetent." Rather than attacking each other, attack the problem. That gives you something to gang up on besides each other. It will help you work together to achieve a common goal.
  8. Differences Are Emphasized - When a conflict arises don't look for all of the ways you disagree with each other. Look for issues and areas that you agree on. Finding acceptance with one another is more important to resolving conflict than emphasizing differences.
  9. There's a "Winner" and a "Loser" - If a conflict or argument ends with one person feeling like they "won" and the other person feeling like they "lost" then you have both lost. Bullying or manipulating your way to a "win" will not serve you well in a marriage. You must look for mutual acceptance and understanding, where both partners feel like winners. This is the only way the relationship will be strengthened and endure.

Constructive Approaches To Conflict Management

Most conflicts are not easy or fun to deal with and work through. However, conflict can and should be dealt with peaceably, especially in marriage. Successfully working through conflict will make your marriage better and stronger. Albert Einstein said, "Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding." Here are some ideas to help you and your partner achieve peace through the understanding it takes to manage and resolve conflict.

  1. The Golden Rule - The golden rule states "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This is the first and most important rule of conflict management. If you are unwilling to treat your partner kindly, and with respect, in your attempts to resolve a disagreement, your attempts will fail. You cannot be critical, contemptuous, defensive, and avoidant and resolve differences at the same time.
  2. Focus On Current Issue(s) - Bringing up the past rarely helps resolve a disagreement in the present. Keep your discussion focused on the current problem(s) and tackle them one at a time.
  3. Share Positive Feelings - It is tough to work with someone if you don't even think they like you. When discussing a problem don't just share the bad or negative stuff. Let your partner know that you care about them and why.
  4. The Focus Is On The Problem - Make sure your partner knows that they are not the problem. You and your partner ought to be able to team-up against the problem, even if the problem is something that your partner did or did not do. You can love your partner without loving something they did. If you are fighting against one another progress will be difficult.
  5. Look For Acceptance and Agreement - Let your partner know that you want to know and understand their view. They will feel accepted by you if they know this and your chances of coming to a shared agreement will be better.
  6. Mutual Blame Is Accepted - It is impossible to argue all by yourself. Anytime that you find yourself disagreeing or arguing with your partner, honestly ask yourself what your role is. You have a role in the argument and the sooner you accept that the sooner you will be able to resolve the argument. This requires humility and an understanding that your view is not the only view or necessarily the best view.
  7. Be Creative - There are many potential ways to resolve most arguments. Team-up with your partner to identify those solutions that will work best for both of you.
  8. Be Patient - It may take a while to find the best solution. If you try one thing for a while and it doesn't seem to be working, try something new.

Rules for Fair Fighting

Couples who fight together stay together, provided they know how to fight fair. It is possible for couples to learn healthy ways to disagree and resolve problems together. Avoiding issues and trying to pretend there is nothing wrong is the real killer. A common divorce scenario is not one of fireworks but one of a gradual loss of closeness. Here are some ideas for rules that you and your partner may want to use to help you fight fairly.

  1. Treat Each Other As Adults - Sometimes when couples are upset they treat their partner as though they were children. Even if your partner seems to be acting childish, don't treat them as a child.
  2. Avoid Ultimatums - Statements that begin "You better do this or else…" are not helpful in resolving conflict. They limit options and really back your partner into a corner, forcing them to make a choice neither of you may be happy with.
  3. Choose Carefully What You Say - John Gottman recommends asking yourself three questions about what you are about to say to your partner before saying it. 1. Is it true? 2. Is it kind? 3. Is it necessary? If the answer to all these questions is "yes," then you can proceed, otherwise, don't say it.
  4. Say What You Really Mean - In the heat of an argument people are not always careful or accurate with what they say. They sometimes even say intentionally hurtful things. Be clear, be kind, and think before you speak. You're working for a solution, not to make the problem worse.
  5. If One Loses, Both Lose - Work for solutions that will satisfy both of you.
  6. Avoid Accusations and Attacks - "You" statements are attacking. When people feel they are being attacked they often get defensive. This doesn't lead to solutions.
  7. Own Your Own Feelings - Use "I" statements. Say how you feel without blaming your feelings on your partner.
  8. Always Check Your Perceptions - Don't assume you know what is going on or how your partner feels or thinks. Check and recheck for understanding.
  9. State Wishes and Wants Clearly and Directly - Don't beat around the bush and don't make your partner guess what the problem is.
  10. Don't Use Sex to Smooth Over an Argument - Sex can be a great part of making up after you have worked through a conflict with your partner, but it is a poor substitute for really understanding each other on a difficult issue. Also, don't withhold sex as a threat or use it in a manipulative way.
  11. Don't Fight Dirty - Don't be physically, emotionally, or verbally abusive or manipulative. Don't intentionally "press buttons" that you know are upsetting to your partner. Of all the people in the world, you probably know how to hurt your partner most effectively. Respect your spouse enough to refrain from dirty fighting.
  12. Don't Give The Silent Treatment - The silent treatment is a form of psychological torture. It will not help you resolve anything and only prolongs the agony of the conflict for both of you.
  13. Call "Time-Outs" And "Fouls" - Set up a system for taking a short break to cool down if things get heated. Be sure to come back to the issue though. Also, set up a way to call a "foul" if your partner begins fighting dirty or breaking your rules for fair fighting.
  14. Use Humor - Humor can be a good way to deal with conflict as long as it's not sarcastic and you and your partner have agreed upon it before hand.
  15. Go For Closure - You and your partner may not be able to completely resolve every disagreement you have, but you should be able to come to an acceptable level of understanding and acceptance. Don't leave unsettled arguments hanging in the air between you.

Basic Steps of Conflict Management

  1. Tolerance - One of the best ways to deal with conflict in marriage is to tolerate it. Partners will have differences of opinion and that is okay - even healthy. You can still live together and love each other with many differences. In fact, researchers believe that couples in long-lasting marriages never really resolve most conflicts in the sense that it is over and done, with a clear winner and loser. Instead, they manage most conflicts through an ongoing process of negotiation where both individuals feel like they have been heard in their efforts to find a workable solution.
    Couples must often simply agree to disagree. Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, says, "Every couple has about 10 irreconcilable differences. The reason couples divorce is they don't know how to deal with those differences." Sollee says, "Even if you switch partners, you'll still have about 10 irreconcilable differences." You simply have to learn how to live with some of your differences.
  2. Agree to Cooperate with Each Other - If neither one of you is willing to budge you will not get anywhere. Cooperation is a key to change in conflict management. Stop fighting with each other and team-up. This requires a change in behavior and a realization that what you have been doing is not working, and perhaps even wrong.
  3. Identify and Clarify The Issue - Figure out what the conflict or argument is all about. Many times we mistake misunderstandings, where we really agree with one another, for genuine differences of opinion.
  4. Find Out What Each Person Wants - If you have a genuine difference of opinion, make a list of what each of you really want to happen.
  5. Consider Your Partner's Point of View - Honestly try to put yourself in the place of your partner. Try to see, feel, and experience the issue as they are. This can be a difficult thing to do because as C. Terry Warner says, "We see things in ways that assure us that our way of seeing them is correct." Just remember that we may not be seeing things correctly.
  6. Identify Various Alternatives - This involves brainstorming and coming up with as many possible solutions as you can think of to the problem. Just spit them out and write them down initially. Don't worry about whether they are good or bad.
  7. Negotiate and Compromise - Once you have listed several possible solutions, talk about which one is best, and the most workable for both of you. You should both feel good about the solution. Remember that you are on the same team and have agreed to work together. This should be a stage for forgiveness and drawing closer together because you have identified how you will manage the problem.
  8. Use Your Solution and Follow-up - Do what you agreed to do and then meet again to talk about how it is going.
  9. Get Outside Help - If you find that you and your partner are unable to come to a workable solution on your own, talk to a professional counselor that you trust. They should be able to help you work through the problem.

Conflict vs. Anger

Conflict and anger are often associated with one another but they are not the same thing. Conflict involves a difference of opinion and anger is an emotion, an emotion that we can and ought to control. Sometimes anger leads to conflict and sometimes conflict leads to anger. It is important to remember that we do not have to get angry about differences of opinion with our partner. Occasionally anger prompts us to take action in positive ways, but more often than not it is destructive to relationships.

Anger is really a double-edged sword in the sense that if effects not only the person to whom the anger is directed but the person who is angry as well. It has been said that it is impossible to be angry with someone else without suffering oneself. Think about the last time you were really angry at someone. You probably didn't feel that great about yourself and you may have even done and said some things that you later regretted. Don't let anger be your guide in managing and resolving conflict, especially with your partner. Be calm as you attempt to deal with and manage conflict in your relationship.

Examples

Exercises

Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2005, December 09). Communication, Conflict & Commitment. Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: http://ocw.usu.edu/Family__Consumer____Human_Development/Marriage___Family_Relationships/Communication__Conflict___Commitment_6.html. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License